Astrid, 24, England

My name is Astrid Halliday. I am a 24-year-old from England who enjoys travelling the world and meeting others from different cultures. For the past 10 years I have struggled with panic attacks as a result of my anxiety. It gets a lot worse in unfamiliar environments when I step outside of my comfort zone, but I can manage okay in my day to day.

I found a hidden gem which massively improved my mental health tenfold and something I believe most people overlook, not understanding truly how beneficial it can be. That is… volunteering abroad. I have volunteered in my local community since I was little, starting with my family litter picking and then going onto working at the charity shop at the end of my road. However, I had always opted for self-care lounging on a beach rather than choosing to spend my time abroad volunteering. I regret not starting this sooner because I have wasted so many summers doing nothing but laying on a sun bed.

I first volunteered on my gap year back in 2013 with Original Volunteers and World Packers. I had a bit of a plan, to get confident meeting new people and making friends before I started Uni, but my main goal was simply to have fun!

Shockingly, many of my fellow volunteers on my project also suffered from some form of mental illness. After I got to know more people, they began opening up mentioning how they cope with their anxiety, depression or OCD back home. Although they suffered from mental illness, it didn’t get in the way of volunteering and everyone mentioned the same thing: that whilst volunteering their symptoms were much more manageable, nowhere near as bad as when back home. Somehow, maybe their focus on helping others helped them.

After returning home from my gap year, I noticed my anxiety beginning to flare up again, so I decided to look up if there were actually mental health benefits from volunteering abroad. Unsurprisingly, there were a lot!

The main benefit of volunteering abroad is that there are immense opportunities to speak with other like-minded people, all in the same boat. No-one knows anyone, and everyone is looking to make friends. Most volunteer jobs are done in teams working with others. Normally, I would never walk up to someone and introduce myself, however seeing people joining the programme, knowing they didn’t know anyone made it a lot easier. I’m not suggesting I became the most confident person as soon as I stepped off the plane, but it was easier as I had to make little effort, all I had to do was say “Hi” or “Good morning” and they would instinctively introduce themselves and ask my name and we would begin becoming friends.

Volunteers feel an increase sense of purpose and people with low self-esteem have noted that through volunteering abroad they felt greater confidence, feelings of self-worth, higher self-esteem and it actually reduces the amount of stress we feel. Researchers suggest that those who volunteer abroad experience a renewed perspective and instead of focusing on the negatives and challenges, they approach life with a glass half full mentality.

Through volunteering abroad, I have become a completely new person and a lot more confident. I would suggest to anyone struggling with their mental health to get away and try this form of holiday. Even if your symptoms don’t drastically decrease, you will always get that feel good factor from helping others.

I have volunteered ten times abroad and countless time at home in England. Primarily I have volunteered through Original Volunteers and World Packers. Both provide plenty of support before departure and whilst volunteering. I would recommend travelling through an organisation as they can help plan and prepare you for volunteering. They also take away any stress of missing something out and make the whole experience a lot easier.

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